Can you imagine a future where the coral reefs you see on your family snorkeling trip are composed of 3D printed corals? Well, that future may not be too far away.
New research published in the journal Nature Communications showcases the work of researchers from Cambridge University and the University of California San Diego who have 3D printed coral-inspired structures on which dense populations of microscopic algae can grow. The scientists hope that using their coral structures as incubators for algae growth will fill a gap in current coral conservation efforts and foster symbiotic relationships like those that occur naturally.
"Corals are highly efficient at collecting and using light," said first author Dr. Daniel Wangpraseurt, a Marie Curie Fellow from Cambridge's Department of Chemistry. "In our lab, we're looking for methods to copy and mimic these strategies from nature for commercial applications."
Using a rapid 3D bioprinting technique and biocompatible materials, the researchers produced coral-like structures that are capable of redistributing light. "We developed an artificial coral tissue and skeleton with a combination of polymer gels and hydrogels doped with cellulose nanomaterials to mimic the optical properties of living corals," said lead researcher, Dr. Silvia Vignolini. "Cellulose is an abundant biopolymer; it is excellent at scattering light and we used it to optimize the delivery of light into photosynthetic algae."
They also showed that algae growth rates on their structures exceeded rates normal for standard liquid growth mediums by 100 times. “Our work defines a class of bionic materials that is capable of interacting with living organisms and can be exploited for applied coral reef research and photobioreactor design,” write the authors in their study.
The researchers have big plans for their coral-inspired structures, saying they could even lead to the development of more efficient bioreactors for producing algae-based biofuels. "By copying the host microhabitat, we can also use our 3D bio-printed corals as a model system for the coral-algal symbiosis, which is urgently needed to understand the breakdown of the symbiosis during coral reef decline," said Wangpraseurt. "There are many different applications for our new technology. We have recently created a company, called mantaz, that uses coral-inspired light-harvesting approaches to cultivate algae for bioproducts in developing countries. We hope that our technique will be scalable so it can have a real impact on the algal biosector and ultimately reduce greenhouse gas emissions that are responsible for coral reef death."